How to Keep From Giving Your Flu to Others

The 2012-2013 flu season is off to an early start, and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning that it’s likely to be a big one, with as many as a quarter of a million Americans hospitalized by serious cases of the flu, and as many as 40,000 of them dying as the result of complications from it, such as pneumonia. The CDC is naturally urging people to get flu vaccinations, to keep this year’s epidemic as small as possible.

But, according to a study from France, published in the August issue of the journal Epidemics, if you get bitten by the flu bug yourself, there is something you can do from your side to keep from spreading it to others – stay home.

If you get the flu, you’re possibly contagious for one to seven days

In previous studies, it has been difficult to pin down exactly how long a person with the flu is able to infect others, because information about the transmission of the disease was anecdotal, and inconclusive. The medical definition of infectivity is the ability of one person to infect another person who is susceptible to the influenza virus such that they develop symptoms of the disease themselves. But is that period one day, or two days, or as many as seven days?

The French researchers measured infectivity by collecting nasal samples from people infected with the flu, and measuring the amount of the virus present in their noses. They then took this data and plugged it into a mathematical model designed to simulate the spread of the disease, and determine the most likely length of the contagion period.

Their findings suggest that the best thing you can do for other people during the first four days after you notice that you have symptoms of the flu is to go home and stay home, and isolate yourselves from contact with other people. The researchers estimate that if people were to do this within 16 hours of first noticing symptoms, they could reduce the number of other people that they infect by 50 percent.

How do you explain this advice to your boss, who expects you to come to work?

It’s pretty simple, actually. Just ask, “Do you want one of your employees out sick, or many of them out sick? Do the math.” It’s really as simple as that. While you may feel subjectively well enough to go into work, if you’re still slightly feverish from the flu, and still sneezing or coughing, you’re going to give it to other people. It’s really a favor to your coworkers to stay home, and thus not expose them to the same virus that has laid you low.

As for how to avoid getting the flu in the first place, that advice has not changed. First, if you can, get vaccinated against the flu. The vaccinations work, and may even provide additional health benefits, as evidenced by a Canadian study that found that those who got flu vaccinations were less than half as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke during the following year.

Other than getting vaccinated, the best prevention is cleanliness, in the form of washing your hands much more often than you usually do, especially if you’re in a home or office in which other people have the flu. Even if a person doesn’t actually sneeze on you directly, if they are still carrying the virus in an infectious state and touch something, you can pick up the virus from touching the same objects. Also, if you can, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth after being in an environment that might be shared with flu victims – again, anything you touch may harbor the virus, and touching your face is a good way to infect yourself with the virus.

Also, of course, practice normal good health habits – get enough sleep, drink lots of liquids, and eat healthy foods, avoiding junk foods and things that tend to weaken the immune system such as sugary snacks and drinks and too much caffeine.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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